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The Whiteboard: Carnival brand loses power, drifts toward dangerous waters

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Would you book a trip on Carnival Cruise Lines right now? Certainly, many people are canceling plans or moving to a different cruise line.

With three highly publicized incidents in the past three months, Carnival is looking decidedly less desirable as a cruise brand. And Carnival controls an astounding 50 percent of the cruise market with its parent brand and nine sub-brands. That's a lot of empty cabins that should be filled with passengers trying to decide if they want the early or late seating for dinner.

What to do?

If you were Gerry Cahill, president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, among other things, you would write a letter to past Carnival cruisers and look to reassure this important part of your audience, which has presumably had mostly positive impressions of your brand in the past. But would you write it like this email that was sent out on April 17 of this year? (Following are each of the sentences from the first paragraph.)

Dear Carnival Past Guest,

Our goal is to drive continual improvement across all aspects of our customer experience. That's a real grabber of a first sentence, Gerry, but seriously, who talks like that except in strategic planning sessions? These are your customers, not your board of directors.

To that end, we launched an operational review this February to learn all that we could from recent incidents and find new solutions. Gerry doesn't want to remind you of any specifics just yet, such as raw sewage in the hallways of a powerless ship, but he does want you to know that "new solutions" are on the way …

Today, we are announcing a fleet-wide enhancement program and will be investing more than $300 million to expand the availability of hotel services in the rare instance of a shipboard event that involves the loss of primary power. Translation: If the boat loses power again, we'll be better prepared to keep the basic comfort features such as, um, working plumbing and food more available. And, just in case you didn't catch that, let's say it again in the next sentence …

In addition, we will also reinforce key shipboard operating systems and add new technologies to further prevent a potential loss of primary power. It appears that Carnival's CEO is very worried that you will be very worried about "the loss of primary power." So much so that he ends two consecutive sentences with the same deadly words that are the equivalent of brand kryptonite. For a brand that once called itself "The Fun Ship," I'm just not feeling it.

Granted, Carnival has sailed into some pretty choppy seas. A brand that is about fun, sun and never-ending parties has stopped dead in the water, literally and figuratively. Snappy copy isn't going to solve that overnight. But here are some suggestions for a different take on addressing your most valuable audience, referred to so inelegantly as "Past Guest."

Talk directly to your audience and not in PowerPoint bullet speak. Gerry opened his last paragraph this way: "I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your loyalty to Carnival Cruise Lines." That's 10 times better than his actual opening line, which sounds like he's reciting a mission statement.

Empathize with your customers. Some people think cruises are too confining or isolating, but this email was to previous customers. They are likely to want to go on another cruise but are now nervous about the Carnival brand. Gerry could have acknowledged that the problems with their ships were beneath their standards and it is understandable to have some doubts. Then he could explain their solutions in a reassuring way.

Back up your promise. Carnival has already started offering discounts to get cruisers back on board. But why not offer some form of a cruise guarantee that could provide additional peace of mind? It would have the added benefit of showing that Carnival is not just fixing the problem but is standing behind its promise to eliminate — wait for it — "primary power loss."

Carnival has a lot of rebuilding to do on both its ships and its brand. And it was a good idea for the CEO to reach out to previous customers with a message. But this particular email mishandled an opportunity to let the brand shine in a moment of crisis and instead came across as corporate buzz speak, not a true appeal to customers already loyal to the brand.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via www.taylorbrandgroup.com.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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